The Map of Leaves by Yarrow Townsend featuring content by the author!

The Map Of Leaves by Yarrow Townsend

When I heard that there was a book that was wrapped in herbalism, with a girl that whispers to the plants and they talk back and lead her to discover truths about the land, the people and herself, I was so excited for receive The Map of Leaves by Yarrow Townsend and entwined myself in the story hungrily.

The Map of Leaves is an exquisite joy to read, it has everything, a fierce female lead balanced by the reluctant discovery of worthy companions, a journey following a coded map to save a land whilst pursued by bad guys, and, particularly for any nature loving readers out there, it’s wrapped up with a knowledge and wisdom of herbs and plants of the landscape.

A wondrous mix of self-sufficiency and learning when to ask for help with an ecological message about stewardship of the land too. There’s Childrens books that touch on these themes, but nothing quite like this altogether, it has the folkish mythic feel of a Sophie Anderson or Kiran Millwood Hargrave but with an earthy eco-mystery like Nicola Penfold with the great quest feel of Vashti Hardy, and then there’s the plants…. The Map of Leaves is utterly and beautifully unique and I want more.

I am lucky enough to be hosting a feature by the author Yarrow Townsend on the inspirations and reasons for messy notebooks such as Orla’s mother’s book, the guide by which Orla learned her herbalism and the map that leads them in their quest. Click here to jump

The Map Of Leaves by Yarrow Townsend
Illustrations by Marie-Alice Harel

Somethings not right in the Borderwoods, a blight has appeared on the plants and there’s talk of a disease, an incurable one, the same one that took Orla’s mother years before. 

Inishowen Atlas, the Warden claims the wild is to blame and orders all crops, weeds, trees, meadows and gardens to be cut down. And they come for Orla’s garden and beloved horse, and she is prepared to fight for them, striking a deal for a grace before they are destroyed. 

After studying her mother’s notebook she finds a map and strange notes that start her on a quest North into the mountains to uncover the root, and the past.

It just so happens that she is not the only stowaway on the Hauler boat. 

This sickness is not brought by witchcraft or sin… it has come from the wild

We must be rid of it… the plants, the swamp, the forest, the wild gardens…we must all clear our land.

Atlas announces the razing of the land.

I’ve loved plants and especially herbs since I was a child, I have a collection of books on herbal lore and herbalism and I remember a trip to Glastonbury town on market day in my teens where I squealed with delight at discovering a herb stand and the Artemisia that has followed me from home to home ever since. 

That joy and love of plants is within so many young readers, whether they know it or not, or have access to outdoor space or not, and this book will reach into their hearts and ignite a fire as they see Orla part of her landscape, feeling the personalities and wisdom of the plants guiding and chiding her. 

I adored the way plants are so integral to the plot, whether characters can hear them or not, they communicate to the people what’s going on such as with the blight and signal our chapters with meaning too. 

The Map Of Leaves may make you want to tend your own garden, plant herbs or introduce native wildflowers or sow seeds, for me to seek out some particular {no spoilers} seeds which when they flower next year will remind me of the adventure I had with Orla and her mama’s book. 

‘All right, all right,’ said Orla, ‘I am listening, you know!”

Bad leaves said the moss beneath the apple trees.

They’ll still do!! said the comfrey

What you need is some pine said the wormwood

Pine sap and resin and tar. Pine tar! echoed the garden.

‘Pine Tar indeed!’ replied Orla.

The garden speaks to Orla as she gathers plants for poultice.

Bear with me but… If you can imagine what Esme Weatherwax from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld might have been as a young girl then you’re in the realms of the character that Yarrow Townsend has created in young Orla. And even if you are unfamiliar with that character, just bear with me for a minute.

She’s crotchety, she’s dedicated to her herbal craft and lives alone preferring the company of nature, but she’s incredibly intelligent, resourceful, observant and at her core, kind, even if reluctant to show it outwards. 

I adore how Yarrow hasn’t chosen a ‘sweet and complicated’ heroine, she gives young readers the permission to repel the ‘good girl curse’ that expects young girls to be sweet-tempered, prettily turned out, patient and obedient at all times. Yarrow allows Orla to lean into her emotions and her introverted nature, and to naturally grow into adjusting her attitudes, not by being shamed or chided into it, but by the internal and evidence-based unpicking of herself as she is thrust into adventure with Idris and Ariana.

She looked after the wild garden, and the wild garden looked after her. There was no need for anyone else.

Across the book Yarrow honours children in how Orla doesn’t miraculously change, she still has no time for nonsense, keeps wearing her boys breeches, but she simply makes space for new ideas, she realises that other people aren’t always bad, out to get her or idiots, and that sometimes it’s ok to let the walls down and let people in… though no mushy stuff right? 

I adore that you could quite clearly imagine Orla being grouchy enough to scare the rain from getting her wet or glare at a log hard enough for it to spontaneously combust out of pure embarrassment. But she also has Esme’s heart, she cares deeply about her garden and by association the wild natural land around her, as much as Weatherwax is entwined with the Ramtops, enough to risk everything to save it.

The plants ere encouraging her to leave , but as she pulled up her hood and made sure the woodshed was shut fast, her heart felt heavy. She bit her lip and took a deep breath. This was her chance to prove that the plants had not caused the sickness.

Orla prepares to embark on her mission.

Whilst modern childrens authors have indeed stepped away from ‘picture perfect’ or ‘implied role model’ protagonists, there are few who are so bad tempered and argumentative as Orla!! 

Orla for me is an absolute tonic, to have such an anti-heroine as our star, giving a louder voice and fuller representation to the perfectly imperfect of us.  She gives us the room to breathe, to lean into our weird and reframe ourselves without the pressure of labels and expectations. That it’s ok not to be your expected ‘good girl’ but you are still of value. 

Yet equally Yarrow is gentle to those who might come across as goodie-two-shoes.

Orla rolled her eyes. Ma had told her that the schools in Westharbour taught nothing but dancing and sewing. It would suit Ariana perfectly.

‘But I’m not going to Westharbour,’ announced Ariana, ‘And I’m not going back to Thormn Creek either. I’m coming with you.’

‘No chance…We’re not doing this for fun Ariana,’ said Orla, ‘You can’t just come along because you fancy a taste of adventure.’

Orla is scathing of Ariana, with whom she briefly was educated, she assumes because she has nice dresses and lives in Hind House that she is vacuous, spoiled by her uncle and dines on goose every night and when discovering she is coming along on the journey Orla has almost apoplexy at how useless Ariana will be. 

However, Yarrow pushes back gently revealing both to the reader and Orla that Ariana actually has grit, and is just as capable of action, depth, heart and true empathy, and has a fierceness and intelligence to match Orla’s, just in a different form. Ariana may appear to fit the ‘good girl’ trope, yet even she subverts it, without hesitation in her determination to save the valley, no matter her personal cost. 

In a similar way, Yarrow gently unravels Orla’s prejudice against Idris, which is based on his Hauler father, the group of cronies come minions for the rich and powerful of the valley. however she particularly hates them because the Haulers seized her mother’s body and buried it hidden in the woods. Idris has lived with his brother abandoned by his parents in Thorn Creek for years, and where Orla should have had some empathy for a fellow alone child, especially when he begs her for help as Castor is sick, she does not simply based on his Hauler heritage. Like Ariana, we see Orla observe things she finds surprising and ‘unfitting’ of her vision of the world and Haulers as Idris is surprisingly tenacious, thoughtful and useful, and furthermore has skills and values she didn’t expect of a ‘boy’ let alone a Hauler one.

It raises the point that if we ask others to consider or accept that we are more complicated, deep and have hidden worlds of pain and feelings than our outer selves may project, we have to offer the same outwards and not interpret and lump people into negative tropes just to fit our, perhaps biased,  perception of society. 

The book was a little larger than Orla’s hands. it was bound with soft leather and stuffed with dried leaves and scraps of parchment…each page had a delicate drawing of a plant, labelled in Ma’s neat handwriting with how the plant could be used for medicine.

And onto the notebook, Ma’s glorious notebook with knowledge, healing, hope and love distilled in the ink that scatters the pages. Filled with line drawings, maps, notes, recipes and experiments, it’s not a neat textbook, it’s a living document where Orla can practically breathe in her lost mother.

Yarrow Townsend had intention and purpose in creating such a notebook and I’m proud to present her thoughts here: 

Why I love Messy Notebooks by Yarrow Townsend

When I was teaching English, I noticed that my Year 7 students felt pretty intimidated by a blank page (who doesn’t?). They hesitated before writing anything down, their minds filled with thoughts of SATs questions from the year before. They wanted so much to get it right that they struggled to begin.

So one day, I decided to tell them how I liked to plan stories – and how many writers, artists and film-makers go about dreaming up ideas. I told them that despite whatever I might say about underlining the date and title with ruler, I also LOVED messy notebooks. In fact, I thought it was the best way to think up a new story.

The Map Of Leaves by Yarrow Townsend

I begged the art department for some sketchbooks for my writing group. I found some pictures of notebooks by fantastic creators like Guillermo del Toro, Frida Kahlo, Chris Riddell, David Almond – and we discussed how ideas could be messy to begin with. We found bits and bobs and scraps to collect for our own sketchbooks.

We cut up magazines and collaged pictures we liked, and I told them that it was actually in the art room that I first really thought about storytelling (listening to The Lord of the Rings soundtrack while copying out Alan Lee illustrations…) – and how I’d always loved keeping notebooks, long before I’d even thought about getting my stories published.

The Map Of Leaves by Yarrow Townsend
The Map Of Leaves by Yarrow Townsend

I loved collecting little scraps of ideas and then flicking back through them weeks or months later and daydreaming about the stories they might become. It felt a bit like wandering in a tangly woodland and deciding which path to take next – with the same sparky excitement of wondering what’s around the corner. It was a place to dream up stories in secret: with no judgement, no red-pen, and no mark schemes.

When I came to write The Map of Leaves, it made sense that a notebook – Ma’s herb book – would be at the heart of the story – filled with pressed flowers, scribbled notes and secret messages.

Yarrow’s Top Tips for Notebooks:

Notebooks can be more than just words! Collect plants, receipts, bits of newspaper articles, wrappers from cool chocolate bars. Some notebooks have fancy pockets in the back, but you can make your own by gluing the edges of a page down like Orla does. Then, you can keep things hidden in there.

-You don’t have to write in full sentences! Lots of people think that notebooks should be like a diary or that they’ll last forever or that they have to SAY something in case someone finds them. Write down words you like, squiggles, learn another language your family don’t speak or write in code like Da Vinci did, if it makes you feel more confident. 

Doodle!You don’t have to be a confident artist – this is just for you! When I was teaching (inspired by my amazing mentor Mrs Wright!) I always let kids have scrap paper to draw on while we read aloud or watched a film. I do it too. It helps me to concentrate and dream up new stories. 

The Map Of Leaves by Yarrow Townsend
Yarrow’s book and the notebooks that helped create it.

Thank you so much Yarrow, I am now less ashamed of my own scribbly note books filled with sketches of outfits and notes and research!!!  I adore this book so much, its inspiring some summer projects in our home educating household, and I’m sure it will inspire many more readers.

Please check out the other stops on the tour for some daily inspiration!!

The Map Of Leaves by Yarrow Townsend

The Map of Leaves by Yarrow Townsend is out now in paperback (£7.99, Chicken House)

Thank you for my copy 💜


One thought on “The Map of Leaves by Yarrow Townsend featuring content by the author!

  1. I’m still in the middle of reading this (oh my god, I love it!) so I’ll come back for a full read hete when I’m done but YES to Orla as a young Granny Weatherwax!!

    Loved reading Yarrow’s words on notebooks/sketchbooks. I used to keep very messy journals of this sort and I loved them, this has really made me want to start again!


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